Much has been written and opined about the expected announcement on July 1st about Israel applying Israeli civilian law to parts of the disputed territories. Here are some facts that are worth keeping in mind.
- No one really knows what will be proposed yet
- A two-state solution is almost certainly still possible
- Application of sovereignty is legal in international law
- Israel has acted unilaterally in the past
- Reactions have been expected, except Arab Palestinians don’t seem to care
1. No one really knows what will be proposed yet
In election campaigns, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised that he would make areas in disputed territory part of the state. But he never outlined any concrete plans for exactly which areas he was thinking of applying Israeli sovereignty to.
The terms of a government coalition deal he struck with political rival Benny Gantz allow Netanyahu to put annexation to a government vote as early as 1 July.
Although highly unlikely, the proposal might be the entire region “from the river to the sea”; he might have been alluding to the roughly 6% of Judea and Samaria (otherwise known as the West Bank) that Olmert offered in 2008, with or without the land swaps; Netanyahu may be thinking about something similar to the slightly less generous offer that Ehud Barak made in 2000; or it might be more akin to the recently released US “Peace to Prosperity” proposal.
Whatever the announcement, it is also almost certain (if there is to be any extension of Israeli sovereignty to any part of the disputed territory) that the large, longstanding settlement blocks where more than 400,000 Jews have lived for decades will be included – as they have always been ‘on the table’ in bilateral talks – and the Jordan Valley, given its strategic importance.
Whatever the proposal, if there is to be an extension of Israeli sovereignty to any part of the disputed territory, it is unlikely to be accompanied by any of the other conditions in the aforementioned proposals that would benefit the Arab Palestinians – details like land swaps, changes to control over the Holy sites in Jerusalem, any form of ‘return’, or economic incentives.
2. A two-state solution is almost certainly still possible
Many critics have already proclaimed that extension of Israeli sovereignty to any part of the disputed territory will destroy chances of a two state solution. This is absurd fear-mongering. Unless the proposal put to government is that all of the land is to become Israel, there is a chance for an Arab Palestinian state to emerge.
And Netanyahu is almost certainly not going to suggest that Israel apply sovereignty to all the land “from the river to the sea”. This is because there is little historic Jewish connection to Gaza, like there is in Judea and Samaria; and if the entire area is one country then Jews will become a minority group, which means almost certain loss of self-determination. Jews have consistently shown a willingness to compromise on territory for peace.
3. Application of sovereignty is legal in international law
Some critics have also suggested that extension of Israeli sovereignty to any part of the disputed territory is illegal. However, there are strong legal arguments that Israel is entirely within its rights to apply sovereignty to the disputed areas.
As international human rights lawyer, Arsen Ostrovsky, and Col. Richard Kemp CBE have written (among others), there is no “State of Palestine” that exists in international law; and not only did Israel liberate the territories from Jordan in a defensive war, but there is a historical connection between the Jewish people and Judea and Samaria.
Professor Eugene Kontorovich has also pointed out that the modern State of Israel was created from land that was previously part of the British Mandate and “there is a clear rule regarding the establishment of new countries: the country’s borders are determined in accordance with the borders of the previous political entity in that area”. Thus, under international law, the borders of Israel should be the borders of the British Mandate just before May 1948. Professor Kontorovich gave an excellent talk in August 2019 entitled “Why Israel does not need to Annex the West Bank”.
4. Israel has acted unilaterally in the past
There is broad consensus that a lasting peace will come through direct negotiations between Israel and Arab leaders. This is why there has been some objection to the idea that Israel would take unilateral moves when it comes to changing borders.
However, many of the same critics of the current unilateral moves were not critical when Israel unilaterally changed borders in 2005. More than 8,000 Jews were forcibly removed from their houses and moved out of Gaza into Israel in hopes that Gaza would become “the Singapore of the Middle East” if only it were Judenrein. Instead of this outcome, Hamas took control of Gaza and it has become a base for the terror group to attack Israel and oppress the people living there.
5. Reactions have been expected, except Arab Palestinians don’t seem to care
The reactions to the proposed, but undefined, extension of sovereignty have generated predictable responses: far right-wing Israelis oppose the idea because they don’t want to see any Palestinian state, far left-wing Israelis oppose the idea because they have assumed the proposal will be to apply sovereignty to the entire West Bank.
Some world leaders have been outspoken also. The French Ambassador to the UN threatened Israel if it were to apply sovereignty to any part of Judea and Samaria, saying the step “would not go unchallenged and shall not be overlooked in our relationship with Israel”. Other EU leaders were less assertive, but still expressed concern about the move. And New Zealand has followed the EU statements with similar claims that “annexation would gravely undermine the two-state solution, breach international law, and pose significant risks to regional security.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah has warned that should Israel move forward with plans to annex parts of the West Bank, it would lead to a “massive conflict” with his country, and has reportedly been lobbying the EU to take “practical steps” to make sure annexation doesn’t happen. And UAE’s ambassador to the United States warned the Israeli public that unilateral annexation of West Bank territory would endanger Israel’s warming ties with Arab countries. Similar concerns were aired regarding the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Arab Palestinian leaders have said they will declare statehood over all of the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital if Israel applies sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria; they have also cut some security ties with Israel already; and Hamas has fired rockets into Israel for the first time in at least one month. However, on the street, Arab Palestinians are apathetic – and some are even supportive – of “annexation”. Both Hamas and Fatah struggled to organise many people to protest the undefined proposal.
In possibly the best news to come from the suggested announcement, the Arab Palestinian leaders have reportedly submitted a counter-proposal to the US “Peace to Prosperity” plan, proposing the creation of a “sovereign Palestinian state, independent and demilitarised”, with “minor modifications of borders where necessary”. The Palestinian text apparently foresaw possible land swaps between the two future states on a like-for-like basis.
If true, this would signal the first time in history that Arab Palestinian leaders have put forward a concrete plan for a two-state solution. Time will tell if it is enough to restart negotiations and if there can be any progress to finalising borders, if not real peace.